The next few hours went by slowly for Larry; even eating seemed to be a chore with all the excitement and anticipation he was dealing with. He'd left a message for Balki to let him know that he'd be out the rest of the day, and Larry was back at 2:00, waiting impatiently for another hour until Della returned with a longcoat and a wide-brimmed hat that would conceal as much of him as possible, in the off chance that someone could otherwise recognize Larry. They were on their way after that.
Larry did his best to try to quell the butterflies in his stomach as they arrived at the meeting place, parking a few blocks away and walking the rest of the way. He followed Della to a back alleyway, crowded with people, listening to a group of people talking loudly and aggressively from a raised platform that they'd built out of several crates—so that they could easily dismantle it and leave if authorities showed up, Larry presumed.
"Those rabble-rousers on the platform are low-ranking THRUSH agents," Della said, in an undertone. "There are a few more in the crowd—the ones holding signs."
Larry took a brief glance around and looked back at the ones on the platform—before freezing in place as he fully registered what he had seen. He glanced back at the signs the nearest THRUSH agents in the crowd were holding—one of them was holding a sign that read, "America for Americans," and the one closest to him and Della held a sign that read "Send Them Back" in blood-red letters.
Larry looked away, exhaling.
"Something wrong?" Della asked, though with an air that clearly told that she knew the answer.
"…I thought this was going to be a tactics meeting, or something like that," Larry said, going pale as the agents on the platform spewed out more anti-immigration rhetoric to the crowd. "That they were going to boast about what they were planning and try to draw in recruits that way…"
"But this is a tactics meeting," Della said, calmly. She indicated the crowd of bystanders, who were getting riled up by the THRUSH agents and yelling back things—a lot of them spewing back words of agreement. "THRUSH has always been about milking the 'Us Versus Them' aspect for all it was worth—that was how they got so far. That is their biggest tactic. You know the acronym. Technological Hierarchy for the—"
"…Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity," Larry recalled, sweat pouring down his face now. "Oh, God…"
"THRUSH has always considered Undesirables to be those they see useless—not just their enemies, but those they feel are standing in their way of conquest and wealth," Della said. "The downtrodden, the underprivileged… the wide-eyed souls who dare to dream of something better and seek a new life across distant shores… they have no place in THRUSH's world. They are just obstacles in the way. And THRUSH knows that there are many who harbor those same sentiments, so they stir up the feelings as best they can an embolden them to do their dirty work for them."
Larry's stomach lurched, and the sickening feeling in his gut only increased as the vile vitriol continued to fester in the words around them.
"You knew…" he managed to say.
"Blanche researched you the moment you appeared on the radar with that first article," Della agreed. "As you drew more and more attention, she quickly realized that you were in a position to do a lot of good—but only if you could see just how dire the situation was. And she also knew that this was the way to show you just how dire things were—something that would strike a bit close to home. And judging by the look on your face, it has hit quite hard. You will forgive our deception, Mr. Appleton—Blanche doesn't need any updates; this is just another Tuesday for THRUSH. And we needed you to see that."
"I've… seen enough…"
"I'm sorry this evening wasn't the thrilling tale of espionage you were hoping for," Della said, sincerely. "But surely you aren't naïve enough to believe that this sort of thing wasn't happening?"
"Of course not…"
Larry had seen it all too many times already—the way people like Twinkacetti and Gorpley treated Balki. And there'd been that whole mess with Mr. Glover the year before; that had been the worst of it, at least until today—Glover hadn't threatened Balki with violence, but Larry knew that if his cousin were to stumble into this alley right now, with the level of sheer hatred and anger the crowd had right now, he wouldn't make it out without serious injury—or worse.
"THRUSH knows what buttons to press—how to manipulate others into doing what they want. It's all they can do now, without being fully revived into an organization that can attempt global subjugation as they used to," Della continued. "This is what Blanche wanted you to see—what she wanted you to warn your readers about."
Larry gave a hollow nod.
"I… I need to leave…"
"Then go," Della replied, gently. "Do you need a ride?"
"No; I'll take a cab…"
Larry gave a hasty goodbye and retreated, walking on autopilot as he struggled to put as much distance as he could between himself and the hate-filled crowd, only stopping to return the hat and longcoat to Della's car.
He then pulled himself together long enough to call the Chronicle—only to find out from a disgruntled Gorpley that Balki had pleaded for the afternoon off for some unknown reason, and, not being in a mood to argue, Gorpley had granted it.
It wasn't like Balki to shirk work and run off—especially without leaving some sort of message to let Larry know where he was going. Would he be home by now? Larry had been out all day…
A new worry added itself to Larry's growing pile of woes. Suddenly, nothing else mattered—the stories, the fame, nothing—except going home and making sure his cousin was alright.
Balki was not having a good day. He had pulled himself together after his meeting with Harriette and had headed back down to the mailroom. His initial relief at seeing Moran gone was quickly eclipsed by sheer horror as he saw the drawer of Larry's desk wide open—and his Manila folder of research gone.
The former sheepherder berated himself for his short-sightedness; he should have expected Moran to poke around—and make off with the research pinpointing THRUSH being led by his forebears. And now, hours and hours of his cousin's hard work was gone in the blink of an eye. It wouldn't be enough to blame Moran—Larry would ask why Balki had left the folder for him to take. And Balki wouldn't have an answer, other than to blame it on his nervousness at the time—an answer that his cousin wouldn't easily accept, for this was the kind of mishap, one directly affecting Larry's work performance, that would lead to another legendary Appleton meltdown.
The message coming in from Larry that he'd be out all day was a reprieve for the eventual meltdown; Balki struggled to use the time to reduce the severity of the impending meltdown—he spent the morning downtime in the Chronicle archives, recopying as much of the information on THRUSH using Larry's signout log as a guide, and, after begging Gorpley for the afternoon off, Balki proceeded to do the same at the library, as well, once again using Larry's checkout log to guide him. It had taken hours and hours, but Balki still wasn't sure that he had recovered all of the stolen information—and even if he had, it wouldn't bring back his cousin's meticulous notes and arrangement that he'd so carefully put together.
Still, it was the best Balki could do, and he could only hope that Larry would agree to that once he got over the initial meltdown of losing the first round of research. It was early in the evening by the time Balki got home with the copies of the research; after leaving them on the table, he proceeded to do his de-stressing activity of choice—cooking.
He had just taken a batch of baklava out of the oven and was getting grape leaves and various fillings together to make a plate of dolmas for an appetizer when he heard the key turn in the lock and saw Larry come in.
"Cousin…!" Balki's nervousness quickly faded as he saw the look on Larry's face. "…You look terrible!"
"…It's getting better," Larry said, after taking a moment. He looked incredibly relieved about something, which only made Balki more reluctant to bring up what had happened with Moran. Larry sniffed the air now. "What do you have over there?"
"Just a batch of baklava," Balki said, dismissively. "But, Cousin, there's something I need to tell you…"
"I'll have some," Larry said.
"…You will?" Balki asked, temporarily distracted in his surprise. "The last time I made baklava, you didn't want to try it."
"Well, I want to try it now," Larry said. "I shouldn't have brushed it off like that last time; you wanted to share a bit of your culture with me, and I should've been more appreciative of that."
Something was definitely up; even as Balki moved to get the toothpicks for his cousin to spear a piece of baklava onto, he could see Larry temporarily staring off into space with a thousand-yard stare, clearly thinking about something else. Balki gently cleared his throat as he held up the tray of baklava and the toothpicks for Larry. Larry snapped back to awareness and took a piece of baklava with a toothpick; his face now took on an expression of pleasant surprise as he tasted it.
"This is incredible!"
"You really think so?" Balki asked.
"I sure do! What's in it?"
"Well, it's just—"
"On second thoughts, don't tell me…"
"Well, I can promise you it's nothing you wouldn't like," Balki assured him. "Our appetizers and main courses have a lot of local flavor, but our desserts more like traditional Greek and aren't anything to worry about. Well, unless you don' make bibbibabkas with the proper care, but, of course, you know all about that, don' you…?"
Larry went slightly red, but the incident was over three years ago—long enough that he could look back on it and chuckle.
Balki was relieved to see him smile; perhaps now was the time to bring up what had happened.
"But, um… We gotta talk about something…"
"Yeah, what happened today?" Larry asked. "I'd called the Chronicle about an hour ago; Gorpley said you'd been out all afternoon."
"Yes, there's a reason for that…" Balki trailed off, trying to figure out the best way to break the news, before deciding that there was no other way around it. "Cousin, I'm so sorry for not being able to stop it, but… you had left your Manila folder of research when you ran out this morning, and while I was preoccupied with something else, it was stolen."
Larry, who had just speared another piece of baklava with the toothpick, froze and let it fall unceremoniously to the countertop.
"I spent the morning in the Archives trying to get your research back, and then I spent the afternoon in the library. I… I think I got most of it back?" Balki indicated the research on the table, still bracing for more ranting.
To his surprise, Larry's meltdown seemed to deflate at he glanced at the table.
"You spent the whole day doing that for me?" he asked.
"Well, of course—it was my fault for not stopping it."
"No… No, it wasn't," Larry said, running a hand through his curls. "I was the one who left it behind in the first place." He went over the information on the table and silently had to admit that Balki had done a good job of recompiling the research—Larry's meticulous notes had been the only thing he couldn't have hoped to replicate. "But you've done a pretty good job of trying to get it back."
"Yeah, really. Thanks, Buddy." He placed a hand on his cousin's shoulder, and then suddenly drew him into a hug.
Balki was a bit surprised, noting that Larry hadn't either noticed or cared that Balki was still wearing his Chicago Bulls apron that was covered in flour and powdered sugar. Nevertheless, he returned the hug.
"Cousin, are you alright?"
"I'm fine—really, I'm fine," Larry bluffed. "Look, um… How far along in preparing dinner have you got?"
"Not very far; I made the dessert first, but that's it."
"Of course you did," Larry mused. "Tell you what—how about we get the girls and the four of us go out for dinner? We haven't done this since this whole thing started and I saw Partridge in that restaurant. And we'll come back and have your baklava for dessert."
"Well, I can get in front of that idea," Balki said. "But can we not go back to Chez Josefine's? In case those THRUSH people are back…"
"Yeah, good idea," Larry said, ruefully. "They're the ones who probably took my research."
"…Yeah, I think that's a safe bet," Balki said, after a moment. "Which reminds me; we got something else we've gotta talk about…"
"It means I'm getting too close for comfort," Larry continued. "Which is good, in a way—I'm in the right direction. But I've got to be careful."
"Yes. Yes, you do," Balki said. "In fact…"
"So we'll stick together and be extra vigilant," Larry said. "Okay, I need to have a word with Jennifer really quickly; I'll invite the girls and send Mary Anne down here, and you two can decide where we go."
Larry had already grabbed the research and had bolted out the door, leaving Balki sighing as he wondered how to warn his cousin about Moran—and wondered why his cousin seemed more out of it than usual.
Something had happened when he was out today—but whether or not Larry would come clean as to what that was would be another matter altogether.
Meanwhile, Larry had run all the way upstairs to Jennifer and Mary Anne's apartment; the girls readily agreed to an evening out, and Mary Anne was more than eager to decide with Balki on where to go.
Jennifer quickly realized that there was more Larry wanted to say, especially since he seemed to have brought his work with him, and soon, Larry had explained what Balki had gone through just to cushion the blow of the stolen research.
"I mean, look at this, Jen," he said. "He spent hours and hours, risking Gorpley's wrath just to make things as less painful as he could for me." He sank down on the sofa, sighing. "Jen, I don't think I appreciate him as much as I should."
"Of course you do," Jennifer said, sitting down beside him. "Larry, you're his best friend, and he knows that. Why else would he go through all this trouble for you?"
"There's more to it than that," Larry said. "English isn't even his first language; this must have been even harder than it would've been for you and me—going through all those confusing arrangements in the Archives and the library."
"…I guess I never thought of that," Jennifer admitted.
"I don't think I realized how much harder things are for Balki until today."
"What happened today to bring this on all of a sudden?"
Larry swallowed the growing lump in his throat.
"All these weeks, I'd been doing these articles on THRUSH and getting all the praise and attention for it. I was in my own personal Heaven." He exhaled. "And today, I saw Hell."
It was difficult to relay what he had seen and heard at the THRUSH rally, but he forced himself to do it; Jennifer had her hand over her mouth, her eyes wide in shock.
"Oh, Larry…" she said, and she took a moment. "Have you… Have you told Balki?"
"How can I?" Larry asked, despondently. "How can I tell him that the country he struggled for so long to get to and establish a home in has this kind of insidiousness that doesn't even want him in it?" He sighed. "You remember all that stuff with Glover trying to give him that token job?"
"You weren't there when Glover finally showed his true colors in front of him and said that he was taking a job away from 'a real American.'" He used air quotes and a disgusted tone. "Balki was really hurt, even if he refused to admit it. If I told him about this, I'm worried about how he'd take it. But, at the same time, you're right—I should warn him, but…"
"…There's no easy answer," Jennifer finished. "Well… I'm sure you'll figure out the right thing to say. You always do in the end."
Larry wasn't so sure, but he certainly hoped she was right. There would be a lot to think about over dinner tonight.